Cars for Comrades
| Peter Klein |
A while back we posted a video from an East German Trabant factory that got a lot of hits. A video is worth more than a thousand words on the political economy of socialism, right?
Indeed, the automobile played an important role in the eventual collapse of the communist system, according to Lewis Siegelbaum’s Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Cornell University Press, 2008). As Perry Patterson notes in his review for EH.Net:
As incomes and economic complexity grew over time, the Soviet state found it necessary to produce more and more vehicles of all sorts, and private cars in particular. But policymakers also discovered that the existence of cars generated additional demands for consumer services, and discontent when the economy could not provide them. As Siegelbaum puts the matter, “cars, cars, and more cars seem to have played a particularly large and invidious role in popular disillusionment with Soviet socialism.” Worse perhaps for the Soviet state, private automobiles and the culture that grew up around them also opened up numerous ways for individuals to evade and undermine the official command economy. For example, cars facilitated private conversions, private dealmaking, the generation of “unearned” income from taxi rides, and the unplanned movement of (sometimes stolen) goods.
The quality of Soviet cars was, well, about what you’d expect. The book “provides extensive examples of the mental knots in which the Communist leaders tied themselves, wanting on the one hand to boast about their superiority over the West on all fronts, and being unable and unwilling to match it when it came to cars,” notes the Economist.
My first “serious” research paper, written in Glen Elder’s undergraduate sociology class, dealt with the social and cultural impact of “automobility” in the US, so this subject is near and dear to my heart. (Fortunately, the paper is buried deep in a secret vault and will never see the light of day.)